Summer is over and school is (or is about to be) back in session! For many moms and dads around the US, the end of summer break is something to celebrate. It means a new routine for families and exciting experiences and opportunities for students, especially first-time students.
Sending our kids to school should be a joyous thing. In school, children learn positive lessons about agency, pride, respect, loyalty, creativity, independence, and friendship. But school can also be a place where children learn or experience negative things—like sexism and body shame.
It's important to let go and give kids space to learn and grow, but parents should also make sure they’ve prepared their children to be safe, healthy, and successful at school. All parents—and especially egalitarian parents—should talk to their kids about boundaries, consent, bodies, shame, double standards, peer pressure, and sexism in school. Have you had these conversations with your kids?
1. Talk to your kids about boundaries and consent.
Do your kids understand what consent is and how to give, refuse, and withdraw it? Do they know where to get help if an adult, fellow student, or faculty/staff member does something inappropriate? Many parents struggle to talk to their children about physical boundaries because it can prompt complicated conversations about bodies, touch, and relationships. Or, some parents may think their own children are not at risk for experiencing abuse/inappropriate behavior at school.
But in putting off those conversations until children are older, parents risk allowing society to shape a child’s understanding of what’s appropriate and inappropriate. Far too many pre-school, kindergarten, and primary school students are left without education from either schools or parents on how to 1) stay safe when mom and dad aren’t around, 2) identify unsafe/inappropriate touch, and 3) advocate for their boundaries.
As egalitarian parents, it’s crucial to educate our kids about the importance of boundaries and where they can get help if someone ever crosses their boundaries. It’s also helpful to introduce complex concepts early—like shame, body agency, and coercion—in age-appropriate ways. You might even use relevant Bible stories to illustrate these ideas.
Finally, we should make sure little ones know that they can tell mom and dad anything without fear, and that an adult should never ask them to keep a secret from mom and dad. Parents should be prepared to have these hard conversations about boundaries and consent for the sake of their kids’ health and safety.
2. Talk to your daughters about beauty standards, body image, shame, dress codes, and double standards.
Sadly, many girls face crushing pressure to look and act in certain ways at school. Have you talked to your daughters about how to address double standards, body policing, and sexism in school? Have you taught your daughters to love, care for, and respect their bodies?
Even in schools that don’t have overtly sexist policies and dress codes, girls still face implicit assumptions and stereotypes. They will inevitably receive a lot of pressure to be thin, perfect, and well-dressed. In Christian and secular schools, girls are often rewarded for conforming to narrow beauty and behavior standards and punished for defying them. And, even if parents teach body positivity and female agency, school rules and culture may undermine that ethic.
If egalitarian parents don’t talk to their daughters about body positivity and help them identify and process gender bias at school, they may think the flaw lies with them and not with an unjust system. They may begin to feel ashamed of their God-created bodies.
Daughters need tools to respond to sexism and body shaming in a healthy, constructive way. Parents should arm their girls with the knowledge that female bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities are created in the sacred image of God and are, therefore, very good.
3. Talk to your sons about “locker room talk” and what they should do if a fellow male student says something sexist.
Like girls, boys face a lot of pressure to act a certain way in school. For boys, this often manifests as “locker room talk” or school culture that excuses—and even encourages—misogyny and disrespect of girls. In the privacy of locker rooms and other all-male circles, boys can hear a myriad of offensive, girl-denigrating comments and jokes. It’s easy to join in because boys want to be respected and liked by their peers, just as we all do.
In hearing sexist comments for the first time at school—and without previous parental guidance—boys may not have the tools to identify why they’re wrong and harmful. We desperately need more boys and men who say and do the right thing even when no one is looking. We need boys and men who have been raised to hold themselves (and others) accountable. In instructing sons on these ethical issues, it might help to let them know that God is on their side when they refuse to engage in misogyny and instead treat women and girls with respect.
Egalitarian parents must talk to their sons about accountability, respecting girls and women, and why it’s always wrong to say hurtful/offensive things—even when friends/peers say them first.
4. Talk to your kids about how they should respond if their school promotes narrow gender roles.
Some girls like football. Some boys like cooking. Some girls are natural leaders. Some boys are sensitive and emotional. We are more than stereotypes, which is why strict gender roles are both wrong and illogical. Yet many schools still draw on these stereotypes for lessons, activities, classes, sports, and other messaging.
Schools can easily perpetuate damaging, limiting messages about femininity and masculinity. Boys who are sensitive are made to feel like they’re weak and unnatural. Girls who are bold and strong are told to be quieter and sweeter (more submissive). Either intentionally or unintentionally, schools that promote gender roles squelch the God-ordained diversity of boys and girls, with all their unique gifts and personalities.
Egalitarian parents should make sure their kids know that it’s okay to be different and defy stereotypes. It’s okay to be a girl who loves science and sports, or a boy who longs to read and write poetry all day. If our kids know that some fellow students and even teachers might criticize their role-defying interests, they will be more prepared to stand up for who they are and what they like in school.
Going to school is a wonderful, important step in every child’s life. But we don’t have to send kids off unprepared for what they will face outside their homes. Instead, parents can give their kids the tools to be happy, healthy, successful (and uniquely themselves!) at school. Have a great school year, everyone!